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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 2, 2007

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Realism, Peter Pan, and Story Games

Made-up stories are silly things, or at least it's silly for grownups to take them seriously. They're all made out of the same pieces, like children's building blocks. Here we'll have the trip to fairyland (or someplace strange); now the passage underground; here the hero meets the heroine but they don't like each other at first; let's show the villain being cruel; now let's add a few feats of derring-do -- and presto! Fiction!

About a century ago, the leading lights of literature declared that we were done with the old Romance tradition. No more kings and queens, no more elves and other magical creatures. We would show only ordinary people, characters that you can believe you might meet in the course of your life. And this was called "Realism."

But a funny thing happened. We learned that nobody actually cares much for stories about genuinely ordinary people. No, not even the literary elitists who still think they're championing Realism.

The problem, you see, is that most of us live ordinary lives -- but to us our lives are very important because we get to (or have to) live them. We care about ordinary people in real life because they're real. We know them; we have to do things for, to, or with them.

When we turn to fiction, it is because we want to read about someone else who is even more interesting to us than our own lives. That means that the characters have to be unusually important so we can care about them more than we care about ourselves -- at least while we're reading about them.

If we want ordinary problems, we can just spend time with our friends.

This hunger for the unusual and the important in fiction is not confined to us common folk. It's true for everyone.

The practitioners of so-called Realistic fiction divide themselves between two strategies designed to maintain the pretense of ordinaritude (a word that has long needed to exist), while actually giving readers a compelling reason to spend their time on made-up tales.

One group really does write about ordinary people -- but the author steps in and writes so flamboyantly that readers are constantly distracted by the writer's shenanigans. When you write as distractingly as James Joyce or Thomas Pynchon or Kurt Vonnegut, you become the most important character in the book.

Their fiction is only barely about the characters. It's mostly about how clever the writer is. So the author becomes the flamboyant, bigger than life hero, not because he takes part in the story, but because he stands between the story and the reader and shows himself to be heroically clever.

The other group of "realistic" writers discover reasons why their character would "realistically" do unusual things. They wear their ordinaritude (use it twice, and the word becomes real) as a veneer. Most contemporary mystery heroes are like this -- Rumpole or Harry Bosch or Kinsey Milhone or Easy Rawlins all seem to inhabit a grittily realistic world and they get beaten up or shot at just like regular folks.

Um ... except that regular folks almost never get beaten up or shot at. No matter how the authors layer on the foibles that are meant to make the characters endearingly common, they are in fact highly unusual people who get away with the most amazingly dangerous stunts.

But it isn't just mystery writers: John Irving, for instance, hardly even pretends to be writing about ordinary people.

There are writers who come close to achieving realism -- Anne Tyler, Richard Russo. But still they show us characters who are at the cusp of unusualness, doing things that even they don't ordinarily do. At some point, realism still makes way for heroic, romantic, or magical deeds.

At the same time, because Realism is so much preached about at the universities, even the writers of the patently unrealistic genres aspire to be mistaken for Realists. Not just science fiction but also fantasy writers slather on realistic details and labor to create characters who seem real: If you were arrested and put in a dungeon and using your great (but realistic) strength (you're a blacksmith -- of course you're strong) you pry your chains out of the wall, strangle a guard, take his keys, free all the other prisoners, and make your getaway ... in a very realistic way, full of realistic feelings every step of the way.

Here's the odd thing: As the Realistic writers become more an more heroic, albeit in disguise, and the Romantic writers (in fantasy, sci-fi, and other genres) become more and more realistic in their manner, the genres converge and all are improved by the cross-fertilization.

The odd thing is that before the dogma that Realism was the Only Fiction Worth Taking Seriously, it was possible for writers to do pretty much anything they wanted; they didn't have to choose up teams and create fiction for only one audience. Their audience was "all speakers of the same language as me," instead of "all people who like spaceship stories" or "all people who like flamboyantly written stories pretending to be about ordinary people."

In other words, there were no genres -- not in the way we use the term today.

All of this is just my usual overly-long way of getting to a very simple point: Have you read the novel Peter Pan?

No, it doesn't count if you've seen the movie -- either the Disney or the recent live-action one. Both are quite good, after their fashion. But have you read the novel of Peter Pan?

Because this is a brilliant book that makes hash of the whole idea of genre.

J.M. Barrie, like Mark Twain, does a splendid job of telling a magical story even as he makes fun of magical stories.

But it goes deeper than that. Both the children's story and the witty performance by the author are entertaining in their own right, but underneath it all Barrie is saying some frightening-because-they're-probably-true about love and death and the cruelty and heroism of children and the nobility and silliness of parents.

When I read, in a book about Tolkien and his friends during World War I, that they went into battle clutching their well-worn copies of Peter Pan, I believed it but didn't really understand why.

Until I picked up the Barnes & Noble Classics edition, with an excellent intro by Amy Billone that gives some perspective on the story, at least from Barrie's point of view.

The writing is wry, surprising, even shocking sometimes -- it is as witty and ironic and even cynical sometimes as anything by Oscar Wilde. Certainly more so than we normally expect in a children's book. Deaths come quite casually, and no group is immune. Peter's "Lost Boys" get killed from time to time (though not while we're watching), and corpses are rather thick on the ground (or in the water) by the time the book is done.

It is also deeper than we think. I loved the P.J. Hogan film from 2003, but the book does things the movie cannot do; it is worth reading it to recover a story that feels both ancient and far more modern than a book from 1911. I can see why Tolkien and his friends carried this book with them into the trenches. There is something almost scriptural in its gnomic wit.

Sometimes a book is so successful in its penetration of the culture that we stop reading the book itself. This is a very good thing for, say, Tarzan, since Edgar Rice Burroughs was a very raw, unskilled, yet pretentious writer when he composed it. But Peter Pan's success on stage and screen has kept most of us from experiencing, as adults, a genuine masterwork.

Not a pretentious thing, like Joyce's Ulysses, but a masterpiece that pretends not to be serious. Barrie tells us, over and over, that he's just kidding. Only he's not.

But Barrie is long dead, and Peter Pan was written generations ago. I keep searching for masterworks today. And here's where the genre boundaries often defeat the writers who would write great fiction if only they knew how.

Genres don't just define books, they define audiences. People sort themselves out according to the section of the bookstore they frequent. Some would rather die than enter the Romance or Sci-Fi/Fantasy areas; others are just as uncomfortable hanging out in the area annoyingly called "Literature," as if all the other books were not actually written down.

It makes a kind of practical sense to sort books out like this. If you've enjoyed one kind of fiction, why not have a place in the bookstore where you are likely to find that same kind of thing again?

Here's why not: Because it's not the genre that I like, it's great stories told well.

So one day I pick up Anne Tyler from the Literature section, and the next day Robin Hobb, and the genre flags couldn't be more different; yet both writers deliver the compelling characters, well imagined and worth spending time with, that I read for. What do I care that Tyler's fictional worlds never have magic (officially, anyway) and Hobb's always do? They both create fascinating characters and take us inside their hearts with consummate skill.

What does it matter to me if Walter Mosley's complicated heroes are put in the mystery shelves while George R. R. Martin's hide out among the fantasies?

Whatever principles they're using to sort the books in the bookstore, it only succeeds in forcing me to walk back and forth all over the place.

To some people it makes no sense to talk of "realistic fantasy" or "fantastical realism," but in the best writers, both things are usually going on, at one level or another.

So when you read Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool, you are keeping company with a trickster straight out of legend, even if he doesn't understand his role himself. All the tropes are there, under thin disguise: It is the tale of a man touched by faerie.

And when I recently opened David Gemmel's Knights of Dark Renown, I was indeed reading a story that is almost pure heroics. Indeed, this book is unusual even for Gemmel in being so relentlessly focused on heroic deeds that I found myself seizing upon each moment of quietness (I thought of saying "quietude" but really, there's such a thing as too many "tude" words in an essay) with a sense of relief. Time to breathe!

Gemmel's heroic fantasy is, in its own way, as grimly real about ordinary people being thrust into difficult circumstances and struggling to make the best of them as Russo's realistic novel; and Russo is as deeply heroic and magical in his tale of an extraordinary man becoming an old man without every quite achieving the greatness that he madly, bravely earned.

It's as if Russo's hero was born out of his time -- he should have been among Gemmel's ragtag group of misfits who find themselves forced to do the work of great men without any will to accomplish it; and any of Gemmel's heroes could be dropped right into the world of Nobody's Fool and they'd feel right at home. Indeed, they'd be relieved at first, until they gradually realized that the same choices are still being forced on people, except without magical armor.

Which brings me to the last thing I'm reviewing this week. Recently some friends came over to visit and I made them try out a new game I had bought. (This is the peril of being friends with a guy who prides himself on reviewing everything.)

I'm not going to tell you the name of the game because even bad reviews sell copies: You stand there in the store and you think, "I heard something about this game" and so you pick it up and look it over and then, like me, you think, Well, this might be fun!

It isn't.

The idea is that you're given a whole bunch of words (rather like the fridge magnet words that were all the rage a few years ago). They're sorted into three groups -- ordinary words, interesting words, and really difficult words to work into a story.

You (or your team) can choose words from any group, and then you try to write a progressive story using the key words. There is a board, along with a complicated system for getting bonus points or swapping scores or other nonsense -- this was tedious stuff, though, and here's why:

If you have a game that purports to be about telling stories, then really you're trying to do two almost opposite things at once. There's the game, with points, which you presumably try to win; and there's the story, ignoring the points, but with, hopefully, a point.

As we played, some of us played the word game, trying to win -- we found weird and convoluted ways to fit long strings of hard words into semi-coherent sentences. They all parsed properly, they just didn't make much of a story, not one that anyone could care about.

One of the teams, though, cared about the story. They never got anywhere near the scores the rest of us got -- but their story was actually a story.

It's not much of a storytelling game when the better your story, the worse your score, and vice versa.

The gamewrights made two fundamental mistakes.

First, they thought stories were made up of words. This is simply not true. Stories are made up of characters and events. The words are merely the tools we use to try to put the story into our listeners' (or readers') heads.

It would be like handing a builder a huge pile of bricks and roof tiles and telling him to make a house. Yes, he might say, what you see on the outside of the house are mostly bricks and roof tiles. But those are merely the outer layer. I need a solid foundation and a wooden or steel structure behind the brick, to hold the whole thing up.

The second mistake the gamewrights made was this: Games and stories don't mix. In a game, the players have a simple motivation: To win within the rules. In a story, the teller of the tale has the motive of entertaining, and the characters in the tale have their own motives, which are rarely simply "to win."

It is possible to play at storytelling and have a wonderful time. In fact, one form of storytelling is even called a "play."

You can even tell a story interactively, with people in a group taking turns telling what happens. There are even rules. But they have great flexibility, and there is simply no way to assign points and declare a winner.

When a storyteller does well, there are no losers -- everyone wins. We can admire or delight in the imagination or inspiration of this or that storyteller, but we also respond differently to each one.

And in thinking about why the well-intentioned storytelling game did not work, I realized that the teaching of literature is often shaped by professors at the university (and therefore by the high school teachers who, as students, believed them) to be a kind of game, in which certain authors "win" the prize and others "lose" -- all by some complicated set of ever-shifting rules that the professors apply to the writing after the fact.

When you teach literature as a game, with winners that come out on top and losers that are consigned to the literary bench, then it's the readers who lose. Much better to simply recognize that people hunger for different kinds of stories and different ways of telling those stories, and their needs and tastes change over time.

No, they don't really "mature" -- their tastes simply change. As they get too used to one kind of fiction, they begin to recognize the tropes and see the repetitions -- so they move to another genre which still has the ability to dazzle them. Eventually, they'll see through that one, too.

When we're young we love tragedy. (We also love comedy, but it's dumb comedy that generally prevails.) When we get older, we've usually had enough real tragedy in our lives or the lives of those around us that what we yearn for is comedy, but not dumb comedy. We want comedies that are really tragedies, but everybody's taking things in good spirits, so we can laugh.

Or at least that's true for some of us. My point is that tragedy is not better than comedy, or vice versa; nor is the audience for one "wiser" or "more sophisticated" than the other -- unless you're willing to reverse the value judgments and admit that the "sophisticated" audience is as likely to be "more jaded," and the "wiser" audience is merely tired.

Here's the truth: If you don't like fictional stories or don't think you need them, that just means you haven't noticed that the news and the instruction manuals and the gossip or whatever other form your stories take are just as fictional, in their own way, as the made-up stories in the fiction section of the library.

And if you do like fiction and you find an author or a book that satisfies whatever hunger drives you to pick up somebody's made-up tales and cram them into your memory, then good for you. You win, because you found a good author, and the author wins, because he found somebody willing to care about his lies. And if nobody else likes what you like, so what? They can find their own books to read.

A book isn't good or bad because of the number of readers it has, or the social class of the readers, or the level of education or experience of the readers. It's good -- for you -- when you love reading it and it's bad -- for you -- when you don't care about or believe in it.

In the game of literature, it's possible for everybody to win all at the same time.

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